Tuesday 30 December 2014

Favourite Reads of 2013 - Much Belated

As 2014 draws to a close and I guiltily take up the blogging mantle once more (I last posted in March, eek!), I give you my favourite books of 2013.  Wait, what?  Yes, I've been so negligent about blogging that I never shared my favourite books last year.  Alas.  But, the beauty of books is that a good book will continue to be a good book even as time passes, so all those below are still heartily recommended by me.

(PS.  I will try to blog more regularly in 2015!  I will post my list of favourite 2014 books very soon.)

Books Published in 2013

I didn't read as many new books in 2013 as I did in 2012, but here are two fantastic YA reads.

Rose Under Fire, Elizabeth Wein

You may recall that I loved Wein's 2012 novel Code Name Verity to bits (review).  I also loved Rose Under Fire, which I read most of over the course of one evening and the wee hours of the morning in a steadily cooling bath.  This novel is also set during World War II and features Rose Justice, a young American pilot who works for the British Air Transport Auxiliary.  On her return from a mission in France, she finds herself forced into German airspace by the Luftwaffe and is interned at Ravensbrück, the most famous women's concentration camp, home to political prisoners, Poles, and spies.  Ravensbrück, horrifyingly, was also the site of Nazi medical experimentation on Polish women, who identified as test "Rabbits".  Due to the clever structure of the novel, you learn quite quickly that Rose survives Ravensbrück.  Mostly, I found myself anxious about the plight of the other women in the camp, who become Rose's friends and family-of-choice.  Their fates are unknown, and they have already suffered so much.  Despite these experiences, these women support each other, teach each other, share art with each other.  I did not want any more horror to be visited upon them.  Code Name Verity made me sob buckets of tears; Rose Under Fire didn't, but at the very end, I cried just a little bit out of heartbreaking hope.

You find out about the fates of some of the characters from Code Name Verity in this stand-alone novel.  You don't need to read CNV first, but I would recommend it.

(On a personal note, last year I had the opportunity to meet Elizabeth Wein in person at the annual SCBWI British Isles conference in Winchester, which was a dream come true!)

Vango: Between Earth and Sky, Timothée de Fombelle

This novel was first published in English in 2013.  I was first drawn to the novel by its fantastic cover (carried over from the original French edition).  How could you not want to read a book with this cover?  A young man on the run, Paris, a zeppelin?  Here's what I said about the novel in my Goodreads review:
Amazing! Just about the best inter-war international caper you could imagine. Vango is on the run, accused of a crime he didn't commit, being chased down by French police and Soviet hitmen. Part of the book takes place on the Graf Zeppelin and there's a heroine who lives in a Scottish castle, drives a race car, and wear slacks Katherine Hepburn style. Plus, somehow Stalin is connected to all of this. 
I read much of this book curled up in front of the fire in a cottage in Penzance.  This past June, I had was able to hear the author and translator discuss the portrayal of war in young adult fiction at the offices of Walker Books in London, at an event put on by IBBY.

Books Published Pre-2013

Young Adult

Long Lankin, Lindsey Barraclough 

Long Lankin is a fantastic, post-war Britain ghost story, with undercurrents of M.R. James-style horror.  Cora and her younger sister Mimi are sent from their East London flat in 1958 to stay with their Aunt Ida in her crumbling ancestral home in the Essex marshes.  While there, they befriend Roger and his family and set out to solve the mystery of why strange ghostly children appear in the nearby churchyard and why all the windows and doors of Guerdon Hall must be kept shut and locked at all times.  It soon becomes clear that Mimi, Cora's little sister, is in grave danger.  This is a novel based on the ballad "Long Lankin", which is printed at the beginning of the book.  Knowing the ballad makes the novel more chilling but doesn't give the plot away.  (My full review here.)

The Fault in Our Stars, John Green

This enormously popularly novel (and now film adaptation) perhaps doesn't need any more recommending.  However, I still urge you to read it, if you haven't already, because it is a wonderful novel.  It is narrated by Hazel, a teenager with metastatic, terminal cancer, who falls in love with Augustus Waters, an amputee and cancer survivor.  You will need tissues.  But you will also laugh (a lot).  This is a smart novel about what matters in life, and what it is like to refuse to be defined by an illness.

 Eleanor and Park, Rainbow Rowell

You will also need tissues for Eleanor and Park, which is also wonderfully funny and sad.  It takes place in 1986 (the year I was born), and tells the story the teenage outsiders who fall in love trading comics and mix tapes back and forth.  It is delightful.

The novel has an ambiguous ending, which I have decided is hopeful, based on the reference in the last chapter to Park and Eleanor both having finished the Watchmen series.

Middle Grade

A Face Like Glass, Frances Hardinge

In the cave city of Caverna, everyone lies because no one shows their real emotions upon their faces.  The richer you are, the more mask-like expressions you can be taught, and the better able you are to deceive.  Until Neverfell arrives, who wears her heart on her face, as it were.  A wonderful novel about cheese, family, and friendship, with wonderful twists.  I kept thinking to myself, "This is brilliant, brilliant, brilliant", through the last 60 or so pages of this book. It's as if Dickens had run wild with a fantasy world.

Best Victorian Novel

Bleak House, Charles Dickens

I finally got around to reading through Bleak House in 2013, having been a fan of the BBC adaptation for years.  Reading this novel is a time commitment, but a most fulfilling one.  I think Bleak House is my new favourite Dickens novel (though perhaps it's tied with Great Expectations...).


The Victorian House and The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens' London, Judith Flanders

Here is a pair of books about the Victorians - both at home and out and about in London - that is wonderfully informative and entertaining.  I learned the significance of so many throwaway comments and descriptions I had come across while reading Victorian novels.  I learned that the Victorians didn't have bedside tables (!), that in a middle-class household like Thomas and Jane Carlyle's, a woman had to pitch in with her maid of all work just to keep the house running.  I learned that one of the jobs of an omnibus driver in the age of crinolines was to make sure a woman's skirt didn't flip up as she entered the bus, that the street was an incredibly noisy place in Victorian London, and that fires were major public events.

The Emperor of All Maladies, Siddhartha Mukherjee

This is a fascinating, horrifying, and ultimately hopeful "biography" of cancer.  It makes for absolutely riveting reading as Mukherjee tracks the history of cancer and the various ways humans have learned to treat it.  I know now that cancer is not one, monolithic disease, but rather a multitude of individual diseases, each with its own behaviour and treatment.  The most horrifying chapter is the one on the craze for radical mastectomy; the most hopeful one discusses the genetic treatments for cancers that should be developed in the coming years, as the genetic profiles of various cancers are mapped.

Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World, Mark Williams and Danny Penman

I don't want to fall into clichés, but this was perhaps the most life-changing book I read in 2013.  Because of this book, I have a much better sense of the relationship between the brain, thoughts, emotions, and the body and how stress impacts on the connections between them.  Because of this book, I try to (emphasis on try) meditate twice daily and can sometimes interrupt the cycle of negative, unhelpful thoughts we all deal with from time to time.  I'll talk more about mindfulness in another post, and why I love it, but this would be a helpful book for anyone in a graduate programme.  (There's a reason this book was one of the top ten bestsellers at Blackwell's flagship Oxford store
this past year).


Villette, Charlotte Brontë

I first read Charlotte Brontë's final novel back in 2008, when I realised I wanted to write a Brontë-related Master's thesis.  On first reading, I found narrator Lucy Snowe's narration rather opaque, and really depressing.  Since then, I've read a lot of criticism on the novel, pointing out its unreliable narration, its gaps and disruptions.  On rereading the novel in 2013, so that I could write on it for my DPhil thesis, I enjoyed the novel much more.  Below the surface of Lucy's hypochondriac, traumatised narrating voice are depths of humour and passion that hadn't been evident to me before.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Laini Taylor

Having very much enjoyed this novel on first reading in 2011, one day in 2013 I was seized with a craving to read it again.  I read a bit more slowly, soaking in the beautiful language, not quite as compelled to rush through the cleverly structured plot.  I basked in the history of the world Taylor created and marvelled at her star-crossed lovers' love and hope.  Well worth reading a second (or third, or fourth) time.   Here's a link to my VERY SPOILERY review of the first two volumes in the trilogy.

The Golden Compass/Northern Lights, Philip Pullman

I reread The Golden Compass for an undergraduate dissertation I supervised last year.  I had such an enjoyable time going back through the whole His Dark Materials trilogy.  When I first read it as a 14-year-old prairie girl, I could only imagine Oxford as a rather old city.  I had never read Blake or Milton.  Having now lived in Oxford, and read more, the trilogy felt richer to me as a literary text and what had been geographically marvellous on first reading, was now both familiar and defamiliarised by Pullman's clever tweaks to real-world Oxford.  I found one particular moment of high stakes danger more horrifying as an adult than I had as a teenager (you may be able to guess which bit I'm referring to if you've read the book - it involves a guillotine-like structure).

Past Favourite Reads lists: 2011; 2012.

Wednesday 19 March 2014

A Break in Cornwall

In October, we took a long weekend trip to Penzance in Cornwall.  We had a lovely rail journey, as part of the track runs right along the shore (we almost certainly traversed the portion of the track which has since been destroyed at Dawlish in the recent late-winter storms).  We stayed in a Grade II-listed eighteenth-century town house on historic Chapel Street.  The house was much bigger than our flat, with three floors and two separate living areas.  We had to shout to each other to figure out who was where.  We made great use of the fireplace and the two cozy armchairs in the living room and one night watched The Big Lebowski, which was in the DVD collection.

The first two things we noticed about Penzance were 1) that it smelled of sea salt (which reminded me of a family trip to the Canadian Maritimes) and 2) there were palm trees! (because Penzance is in a sub-tropical zone).
We were also just steps away from the house Maria Branwell, the mother of the Brontes, grew up in.  Further up the street was the old Wesleyan Methodist chapel, which I suppose they must have attended (the Branwell were Methodists before the sect split off from the Church of England).
Other than relaxing by the fire with books, Tim and I did two awesome seaside walks.  First we set out to the east for Mousehole (pronounced Mow-zel, I don't know why) via Newlyn.  Here we go along the promenade at low tide.
Mousehole was delightful, set on a hill and surrounding a harbour.  Tim stopped at a pub and had the catch of the day.

The next day, we headed out in the other direction, for St Michael's Mount, just off the coast at Marazion. You can see town and castle/island in this picture.  It was quite breezy that day, so we also got to enjoy watching the kitesurfers as we walked along.
We had checked the low tide time the day before to make sure we could walk across the causeway to the island.  Usually, you can take a boat back to the mainland at high tide, but for whatever reason, it wasn't in operation on the day of our visit and the castle closed early that day, so we mostly just walked around the grounds for a bit, and then headed back across the causeway without seeing the castle itself.  Alas.  We'll just need to visit again someday.
In Marazion, heading back to Penzance, with palm trees!  If you find yourself with the opportunity to visit Cornwall, I'd certainly recommend it.  It was a lovely place for a seaside break, even in October.

Wednesday 12 March 2014

Coming Out of Hibernation

Daffodils and blossoming tree in the churchyard of St Leonard's, Eynsham
Well, hello, hello, hasn't it been a long time since I updated?  A scandalously long time, in fact.  I have decided my best excuse is that I was hibernating and now that it is spring (or, at least, it was very springy on Sunday), I had better get back to it.

I suppose the real reasons for lack of posting were partly born out of busy-ness, as this term I have prepared and submitted all my materials for the Confirmation of my DPhil status, and I am currently racing towards the completion of a full draft (!) of my thesis.  I'm also still submitting my YA fantasy novel to literary agents, and should be pushing ahead on the first draft of a new novel.

In the coming days and weeks, I plan to post on
  • my experiences on the third year of the DPhil and the work/writing/life strategies that are currently working for me
  • 2013, the year that was (including the best books I read last year)
  • our recent travels to Cornwall, Munich, Vienna, and Prague
Until then, a few more pictures from our walk up the Thames Path to the deliciously cute village of Eynsham.

The Thames path, rather muddy in places, but dry here.

The 18th-century toll bridge at Swinford.  Still charges a measly 5 p per car at the bottom.  Free for pedestrians and cyclists, however.

The tower of St Leonard's church in Eynsham

Monday 23 December 2013

Bristol Day-Trip

Hello, hello, poor neglected blog!  Three months is a long time between posts, so now that I'm sort of on Christmas vacation, I will try to catch you up on my Michaelmas adventures - DPhil strategies that mostly seemed to work and trip pictures - as well as the standard end-of-the-year "Best Books" post (which I can't write yet because I'm still reading!) and goals for 2014 (namely: Submit Thesis).

The best way to slide back into blog posting is to share some pretty pictures, so I'll start with shots from our November anniversary day-trip to Bristol, which was great fun.

Upon arriving in Bristol, we headed to the furthest afield site we were interested in: the suspension bridge at Clifton, designed by good old Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel.  (Actually, there's a bit of a Brunel theme to the whole trip.)  We walked across half the bridge.  Apparently there are great trails on the other side of the Avon gorge but we didn't have enough time to explore them.  Next time, perhaps.

We checked out the bridge from the hill the Clifton Observatory sits on.  As you can see, the observatory was all fenced off, so we couldn't explore inside.  Alas.

Then we headed down through Clifton to the harbour, passing delightful (and very expensive) row houses along the way.

We made a point of popping into one particular courtyard to see the blue plaque on the building where Thomas Beddoes had his Pneumatic Institute in the late eighteenth century.  Tim wrote his MA thesis on Beddoes, who was also a Clifton doctor.

Bristol's harbour was rather lovely and housed, in permanent dry dock, Brunel's S.S. Great Britain, which you can tour inside and out after a great deal of restoration work.  The ship was the first to combine an iron hull with a screw-driven propellor.  In the 1930s, it was scuttled off the coast of the Falkland islands, but in 1970 the ship was raised and floated back to Bristol, where it had originally been built and launched.  As you can see, the hull has taken quite a beating from being immersed in salt water for decades, so it is now kept in very dry conditions to keep the iron from rusting any quicker than it needs to.  The interior is set up to resemble the ship's days as an immigrant ship to Australia.

Bristol Cathedral.  We met a very friendly verger on the way in, whose wife was Canadian.  We knew he must be connected to Canada because it was Remembrance Day and he was wearing a Canadian poppy, rather than a British one, and had secured it using a little Canada flag label pin.

 This is Cabot Tower, a lovely Victorian folly, built to honour John Cabot, who set out to explore what is know Canada from Bristol.  We got a lovely, misty view of the city from the first viewing platform.  I'm glad we didn't go to the top of the tower, because the stairs we did climb made my knees rather unhappy as it was.
 Then we followed that up by going down the Christmas Steps, a nice shopping street, and came upon this medieval almshouse.
 We saw this bomb-damaged church on the way back to the train station.  Because of its harbour, Bristol was a prime target for Nazi bombs during the Second World War, making the fifth most heavily bombed city in the country.
And to end our Brunel-themed trip, here is the Brunel-designed train station.

We also very quickly popped into John Wesley's first-ever Methodist chapel, but I don't have a picture of it!  I will check with Tim to see if he took a photo on his phone.

Saturday 21 September 2013

Music of Hilary, Trinity, and Long Vac 2013

Well, it's been ages since I've done a music post, which is a bit of a shame, because I've discovered a number of new bands I quite like since my last post.

A friend of mine recommended Fleet Foxes and Bat for Lashes to me, both of which I quite like.  Fleet Foxes has a nice, throwback thing going and reminds me of classic rock, while Bat for Lashes has an indie/Florence + the Machine thing going on.

I might like 'Daniel' best of the Bat for Lashes catalogue, but 'All My Gold' is the one I get stuck in my head most often.  The Fleet Foxes song is 'Myknonos', which is great.

Tuesday 10 September 2013

A Day-Trip to Birmingham

 Back in August, basically on a whim, Tim and I took a day-trip up to Birmingham, a city neither of us had been much interested in previously, but we ended up having a fantastic time and will almost certainly need to go back again.  What I discovered almost immediately upon arrival is that Birmingham is filled with treasures for a Victorianist, filled with lovely red-brick buildings and, for instance, the above-pictured Great Western Arcade, built in 1875-76.
 The lovely interior.
 Then we went to Birmingham's cathedral, one of the smallest in England, but lovely to visit, especially because it features four huge stained glass windows by Edward Burne-Jones, the pre-Raphaelite painter.
Here you can see two of the windows.  They all featured a surprising amount of red, making them seem rather lurid.
 We were very impressed with the civic spaces and buildings surrounding the Town Hall, which looks like a classical temple and which we apparently didn't take a picture of (tsk, tsk).  I've forgotten what the first building pictured was, but the lower one is the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.  The museum is free and wonderful - sort of a smaller mix of the Victora & Albert Museum (furniture, ceramics, etc.) and the Tate Britain (many pre-Raphaelite paintings, which we somehow missed), plus some great local history.  The history of the city did a great job of covering the Enlightenment figures who lived in Birmingham (many of whom Tim studied for his MA) and the city's abolitionists.
 A statue of Joseph Priestly, who discovered oxygen and was a Unitarian minister.  He was unfortunately run out of town when a mob burned his house down.  He ended up in the United States.  Tim considered writing his thesis on him.

After the museum, we went to the Pen Museum in the Jewellery Quarter.  For quite awhile, Birmingham was the centre of both the jewellery trade and the steel pen trade.  The Pen Museum housed tons and tons of metal pen nibs (including giant ones for use on posters!), pen nib boxes, and the machinery used to punch and shape pen nibs, plus fountain pens and typewriters of varying vintages, which you could actually test out.  For years we kept Mom's old university typewriter in the basement and when I was little, I remember playing with it was fair bit, and getting frustrated with the keys would all jam together.  This was the first time I'd used a typewriter since Mom's ribbon ran out of ink - they even had ribbons with black and RED ink!  It was all very fun, but I came away very grateful for computers.  I can't imagine typing an essay - a thesis - a novel - on a typewriter!

If we'd had more time, we would have booked a tour of the Jewellery Quarter Museum as well, but instead we set off through the quarter on a hike up to Matthew Boulton's house, Soho House, where the Lunar Society met.  One the way, we passed buildings that were (are?) jewellery workshops.
 This is Soho House.  I have to say, it seemed very liveable to me for an eighteenth-century house.  They've even uncovered the remains of a hot air heating system Boulton rigged up for the house.

Boulton was quite the man.  The house originally abutted the land taken up by Boulton's ground-breaking Soho Manufactory (sadly, it's all suburbs now).  With James Watt, Boulton came up with a new version of the steam engine, which ended up in factories all over the country.  He also minted coins and lobbied for an assay office in Birmingham, which allowed for the growth of the silver trade in the city.  Plus, how can you not love a man who had a Fossilry in his house - that is, a room for storing fossils!
At the end of our day in Birmingham, we went down to Gas Street, a span of the Birmingham canal charmingly lined with restaurants and pubs.

If we ever go back to Birmingham, we'd also like to see the university campus, Winterbourne House and garden, Aston Hall, and the Birmingham back-to-backs, the last surviving court of houses in the city, but you have to book ahead, as they only allow tours of eight through at a time.

Friday 2 August 2013

Avignon, Pont du Gard, and a Miserable Day in Arles

I did promise my mother I would finish posting the highlights of our France trip.  For the last few days, we were based in the old town of Avignon, where popes (and then anti-popes) set up shop for about a hundred years in the 14th century (Rome was thought to be too dangerous).  The entire old city is surrounded by an intact medieval city wall and is very walkable, with quirky little side streets and squares.  We also liked Avignon because we could hop on the TGV to go back to Paris, or go by train or bus to other places in Provence.

 Here is the Papal Palace by sunset, on the gloriously warm day of our arrival in Avignon.

The next day, it had become quite a bit cooler and rainier, alas.  We took a very inexpensive bus up to the Pont du Gard, exclaiming over all the vineyards we passed and all the lovely hills.  Provence felt much more sun-baked and Italian than we were expecting.  This is the river itself, with great hills on either side for scampering up and down and taking in the view.

The famous bridge with the aqueduct just running along the very top (after the sun had come back out).  The museum here had a really fascinating exhibition on the engineering and administration that went into building this aqueduct in the 1st century AD to supply water to nearby Nîmes.  This is the second-tallest Roman ruin after the Coliseum and it was something to behold in person.

The next day, we took an ill-fated day trip to Arles.  Sigh.  The forecast for our visit to France promised us temperatures of 25 degrees each day we were in Provence.  Alas, on this day, it poured rain and was windy and was about 8 (EIGHT) degrees!  Since we had stupidly not brought our umbrellas with us and had only light jackets, we ended up rather soggy and sad.

 Here is Arles' Roman arena - still in use for rodeo-style events, with metal risers built over the old stone seating.  I couldn't decide if I was really pleased the arena was still being used for something like its original purpose or slightly sad that it wasn't being carefully preserved as a Roman ruin.  The tower you see towards the back is a medieval construction and at one point in the Middle Ages, an entire settlement was set up inside the arena.

We came to this church because the always-helpful Rick Steves promised it had one of the most beautiful and elaborate entrances of any Romanesque church.  The church wasn't open when we happened by.  We considered waiting awhile so we could see the inside, but we were soaked by this point and decided to cut short our visit to Arles.  We dashed through the pouring rain to catch an earlier train, took a wrong turn, missed the train, and then ended up on a bus back to Avignon.  I suspect we need to go back to Arles some day when the weather's nicer.